Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Another glorious day in the Corps

Hello. I am happy today. Do you know why? Because I have have just taken delivery of my brand new vacuum cleaner.

It is a Dyson DC 35 Multifloor. It's cordless, lightweight, compact and based on the same revolutionary Dyson (tm) technology used in such classics as the DC32, the DC25 and the DC19T2.

But that's not why I bought it.

I bought it because if you hold it right, it looks just like the smartgun used by Drake and Vasquez in Aliens. And if that's not the best reason to buy a new hoover, I don't know what is.

Check those corners, marines.

Even cleans along the skirting board.
That really is why I bought it.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Deliver us from email

There's a bit of received wisdom that states that the three most stressful events in one's life are Funerals, Weddings and Moving House. Or it could be Childbirth, Divorce and Job Hunting. Or Alien Invasion In Your Home Town, Your Last Day As A Cop and Being Hunted For a Crime You Did Not Commit. I forget.

Be that as it may, I should like to suggest a fourth event: Setting Up Your Email.

I have wasted far too much of my precious time (that is to say, time that could have been better spent searching Google Images for the perfect children's character to vandalise with Photoshop) arsing about with email accounts, addresses, contacts, messages, servers and software than I care to imagine. But probably somewhere north of 48 hours. Not consecutive of course - spread out over the years. I'm not mental. But I'm getting there, thanks to the tyrannies of Outlook and its foul ilk.

Without going into painful detail, I shall shortly try to give you a flavour of my emailly adventures just this yesterday. Maybe you can spot where I'm going wrong. I suspect my major mistake is the foolish belief that I can do all my own technical support. You know, what with being a computery sort of person and everything. But let me tell you, having a 20-year old Computer Science Degree (oh yes) has in no way stood me in good stead by way of PC-literacy. Actually I probably mean laptop-literacy, which is at least pleasingly alliterative. As is notebook-knowhow.

As I say, a fading memory of predicate logic, how to wire Boolean logic chips and debugging Assembler code has proven to be no help whatsoever when it comes to attempting even the most basic of emailly manoeuvres. This shameful realisation on my part has come to me painfully and slowly. Yet somewhere deep within my brain there still lurks a tiny voice squeaking 'You can fix this. No need to ask anyone for help. Go on, just go into Tools and click on Accounts...'. Treacherous little bastard. But I shall heed its siren call no longer. I will stand up proudly and state 'I can no longer be trusted to set up my own email'. I think this is the first road to being put into a care home, but I no longer care.

So here's the situation. Without going into specific specifics, I find myself needing to set up a new email address with a new name. Those of you with whom I am a regular email correspondent will no doubt see the logic for this as I currently have two email addresses (work and home) and three actual names which could be classed as Boy Name, Girl Name 1, Girl Name 2. This is a source of confusion for others and of cringing awkwardness for me. For the sake of the illustration, let's say I started off with Fred, moved on to Velma and am now on Daphne. As you do.

Likewise, my current email stable consists of fred@nowdefunctsupplier.com and velma@evilemployer.com. But no daphne@whatever.com. This is a problem. It's a problem for my friends trying to keep track of what to call me today, a problem for me trying to remember what I'm called to which people, and a problem for prospective employers who take one look at my various email addresses and conclude that I am trying to run the most inept identity fraud since White Chicks.

So what's a confused person to do? I figured I'd just set up a new email address like daphne@nowdefunctsupplier.com in a couple of minutes and get on with my day. Fool, poor pitiful fool that I am. nowdefunctsuppler is - surprisingly - now defunct, long absorbed by maidenmedia, so I am forced to select daphne@maidenmedia.com as an address. Except that daphne@maidenmedia.com is not available. Some other Daphne has got there already, Oshtur take her. I am electronically advised that daphne3@maidenmedia.com is available, as is dap1215@maidenmedia.com and a variety of other substandard alternatives. But as this is neither Logan's Run nor The Prisoner, I refuse to be numbered.

What follows is a good hour or two of my life utterly wasted trying to think of another email address that is acceptable both to me for its originality and to maidenmedia for its availability. This process is further complicated by the maidenmedia webpage reserving any available names I come up with so that others cannot jump in and ninja it off me. All well and good, but if I find that Name1 is available, then go off and check the availability of Name2, I later find that Name1 is no longer available. Why? Because some other bugger has reserved it. Yes, me. I'm that other bugger, you stupid website. Let me have my name back, you slag!

Argle. Eventually I get a decent address - daphneblake@maidenmedia.com. Lovely. All I need to do know is to tell the email software on my little laptop about this new address. What could be simpler? Almost anything this side of reciting the prime numbers of the Zeeman Series, it would seem.

Some technical background. My laptop uses Microsoft Outlook 2003 to handle email. My laptop is old. The software is old. I am old. We all go together quite well. Sometime during the first years of the 21st century I set up Microsoft Outlook 2003 to receive and send email on behalf of fred@nowdefunctsupplier.com. This is clearly before my mind had dropped below whatever the minimum threshold is for email maintenance, because I now find I am incapable of adding a new address. In terms of Marvel Superheroes: The Roleplaying Game, my Reason was Good (e.g. Captain America) but has since dropped to Typical (e.g. J. Jonah Jameson) or even Poor (e.g. Dazzler). If I were a GURPS character I would suspect I have picked up a punitive 20-point flaw: Catastrophic Irrational Inability (Sort Out Own Email).

Much of the remainder of yesterday is spent in increasingly frustrating - and frustrated - attempts to tell Outlook about daphneblake@maidenmedia.com. It needs to know my incoming POP3 server name. My outgoing SMTP server name. The port number. Something about SSL-enablement (supersonic lemurs?). What my new personal data file will be. And on and on. I kind of give up trying to add Daphne in as an Outlook account. I can't see how to switch between her and Fred. You can on Outlook Express, but that's like a whole different sort of email software. It's just spelt quite similar, which is just cruel and perverse. The difference is something to do with identities and message images I think. Gaah.

So I set up a rule in Outlook to get all my Fred emails rerouted to Daphne, who I can only access via the maidenmedia mail webpage. This sort of works. Except that all the rerouted emails have been Forwarded, not Redirected, so they all look like they've come from Fred and not the original senders, which is less useful. Certainly a bit more of a pain for sucking up sender contacts, I suspect. Also, I'm not completely sold on using webmail anyway - the interface doesn't seem as user-friendly as Outlook and I don't know how to use it properly. And I'm not sure I can face laboriously building up all my old contacts on a webmail site, or even if that's possible.

I think a lot of the stress of changing emails comes from:
  • fear of losing old precious emails,
  • fear of losing old address/contacts,
  • fear of old friends sending something to your old email address and you not knowing about it.

Yeah, I know you can export address books and messages from one machine to another (barring stupid 'MAPI initialization' errors - a tale for another time), but can you somehow upload all that old gubbins to a webmail site if you switch to purely webmail use? Or would you have to settle for keeping some old email software on your machine anyway, as an old folks home for your venerable emails and contacts? I dunno. I have Reason Poor.

By late yesterday afternoon, I have set up a daphneblake@maidenmedia.com account. Which may be the same as an address. I can only use this address from the maidenmedia.com webmail page. It has no contacts and none of my old Fred emails. I have also added and removed a new Daphne account to Outlook several times in fear and ignorant, impotent confusion. I have set up a 'fredToDaphne' rule (note the correct Java-style naming convention), with all the Forwardy drawbacks that entails. I have even set up a daphne.blake.uk@gmail.com account in a moment of desperation, only to find that the gmail web interface looks exactly the same as the maidenmedia one, and thus offering no advantage over that other.

Finally, in a rare moment of clarity and self-knowledge, I decide that I cannot solve this problem on my own, and am in serious danger of having some kind of mental breakdown over this trivial bloody issue. Other people, people who are not the brightest of sparks, manage to set up emails. Why can't I? Am I cursed? Is this a punishment for my hubris? Should I have stuck to the cosy sandpit of Outlook Express? I only installed Microsoft Office in the first place because I liked the cute little square program icons.

I eventually stop rocking back and forth on my seat like Arthur Fowler and the Christmas club money incident and do what I should have done straight away and take it to a professional. I shove the hibernating laptop in my bag and set off for the PC support shop on the high street. Halfway there I turn around and return to Pouch Central for the power lead, just in case. I catch the PC support men at lunch, but a woman who works there runs interference for me while they gobble their snacks. She glazes over somewhere in the middle of my email monologue and confesses that this is out of her league. The PC man appears from the back of the shop and I begin my saga again. This goes on for about 5 minutes. He then tells me that they are just too busy at the moment. I suggest that he could have told me that at the start. Heated words ensue. I leave the shop with a sharp turn of the heel and a 'Good Day to you sir' worthy of Jules and Sandy.

Back home, I fish out a business card from the mulch of the workdesk and call a nice man called Andy who has fixed our PC in the past. I sketch out the problem and he agrees to come over in a couple of days. Good. All I have to do now is resist the urge to try to fix it myself in the meantime. Curse my Y-chromosome. It twists and deceives like wily Loki. It then occurs to me that a helpful email to Andy might prepare him for the herculean feat of mailomancy that awaits him. This tech-heavy note stretches to several screens and reads like a cross between a technical requirements document and an identity crisis confession. God knows what he's made of it. I can't bear to check my inbox to see.

So while I wait for Andy to deliver me from email, I throw the floor open to you, my pouch perusing pals. I need your brains. Should I throw in the towel and bid farewell to Outlook in all its incarnations? Should I throw my lot in with webmail? If so, which? Why, why, why is this so stupidly hard? Learning to drive a new car is nothing compared to setting up email. I require Nintendo Wii levels of plug and play simplicity, not build your own particle accelerator complexity.

To recap:

  • I want more than one email address.
  • I want to switch easily between email addresses/account/identities.
  • I want the old email address to automatically forward all emails to the new one.
  • I want all my existing contacts available to my new email address.
  • I do not want to lose my old email messages, for old time's sake.
  • If I use webmail, I do not want to lose my messages after X months.
  • If I use webmail, I want to be able to set up extra folders and the like, as in Outlook.
  • I do not want to have to remember POP3 and SMTP names not never no more.
  • I want to get another laptop at some point in the not so distant future, and I do not want to go through a whole lot of setting up and migrating kerfuffle ever again.
So please, big wide world, lend me your brains. I am yours for the advisalment.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Book of Revelations (revised)

It is a common mistake in period dramas, especially noticeable in those set within living memory, to dress every character in the archetypal fashions of that era. Life On Mars for example, set in the early 70s, ensured that absolutely every male character sported massively wide shirtcollars, fuzzy sidies or flappy flares. Ditto Ashes To Ashes, where every female character looked like they should have been supplying vocals for The Human League. But real people aren’t like that. We stick with what we like, and wear what we’re used to. Only the young and the vapid actually dress according the diktats of the fashionistas of the age. The rest of us drag our (platform / flat / spiky) heels until wear ‘n’ tear or peer pressure behove us to trade in the old and comfortable for the new and on-trend.

So it was for me in the mid 90s, when the jovial bartender at London’s Comedy Store remarked that my sports jacket with rolled up sleeves was indeed, so 80s. Mortified that I had evidently failed to read the government pamphlet issued to all households on December the 31st 1989 that the Miami Vice look was ‘right out’, I sheepishly rolled down my sleeves, binned my espadrilles, and started shopping for acid t-shirts.

As in fashion, so in television. Tedious Top 100 list retrospectives tend to assume that if you were of a certain age at a certain time, you had to be into whatever was the most popular show going. It is for example, heresy to say you just didn’t like Monty Python or Fawlty Towers (unless you’re my mum - she's always hated 'em), and for my generation the same went for The Young Ones. But being as we were a one TV-household at the time, the chances of my asserting a tentative viewing preference over those of the parents were minimal. Not for me the rebellious 'I Want To Watch It And You Can’t Stop Me' histrionics of many an adolescent drama. Sensing the obvious disapproval of the family elders for the rabid antics of the goggling Rik Mayall and his chums, I don’t think I ever got further than accidentally leaving the TV on BBC2 for a couple of seconds into the announcers “And now…” link before it got switched over to The Nine O’Clock News.

So I had literally no idea what the rest of the kids at school were talking about the next day, though I surmised from their enthusiastic re-enactments that it had something to do with beating up a long-haired hippy quite a lot. Interestingly, the same went for Top Of The Pops. It was slightly disapproved of in our house, so I never really made an effort to watch it. Consequently I had no idea who any of the pop bands in the 80s were, let alone looked like. Teenage discos were a puzzle to me – I had no mental image of who any the bands being played were, with the obvious exception of Boy George, I think. To this day, I can’t tell Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears and Spandau Ballet apart.

I know, tragic isn’t it? I’m thinking of writing one of those awful ‘childhood suffering’ autobiographies about the hardships of growing up not being able to differentiate between Martin Kemp and… whoever was in those other bands. I’ve just looked them up on Google – the names and faces mean absolutely nothing to me.

Of course all that changed with the twin advents of the family's new portable telly and my Greatest Hits Of 1988 double cassette album, but that’s a story for another time.

We don’t all slavishly follow the Number One trends of our time. Some of us do of course – we call them The Majority and are happy to leave them to their weekly diet of Downton Abbey / Strictly / Mastercock like cheap Victory Gin while we nonconformists cheerfully snipe from the sidelines and pretend not to feel left out.

On the other hand, I do like Christmas Comedy Cash-In books. You know what they are – sort of annuals for adults, usually based around whichever comedy series was popular on TV 18 months previously. The book's then released to squeeze the last drop of funny from comic performers who have already struggled to eke out 90 minutes’ worth of on-stage material (honed over 10 years on the club circuit) into a couple of 8-episode series on BBC2. The last proponents of this were, I think, That Mitchell and Webb Look and then The Mighty Boosh a couple of years ago, but there’s only so many of Noel Fielding’s spastic finger paintings that you can pad a  Christmas annual with before the punter starts to feel ripped off and slightly hallucinatory.

I recall a particular series of Christmas Comedy Cash-In books that came out between 1986 and 1990 and were all called How To Be (something). They were written by a couple of chaps called Mark Leigh and Mike Lepine. Or that might be Mike Leigh the acclaimed film-maker and habitual employer of Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent. I forget. The first in the How To Be series were clearly designed to cash in on the success of stars of The Young Ones, featuring Ade Edmonson of the cover of How To Be A Complete Bastard, and Rik Mayall on How To Be A Complete B’Stard. Neither interested me as I had long since adopted the disapproving non-Young Ones stance of the older generation.

But then Leigh and Lepine brought out a couple of less blatantly cashy-in (that's a word) books - How To Be A Superhero and The Book Of Revelations. Since these ones seemed to bear no obvious affiliation with the aforementioned unmutual BBC2 sitcommery, they duly ended up in my Christmas pillowcase on consecutive December the 25th mornings. The Superhero book was a tour de force if, like me, you were a) totally in love with superhero comics, b) between the ages of 16 and 25 and c) a recent convert to the ‘shit & bollocks’ comedy of adult comic Viz. If you didn’t fit this particular niche demographic, you probably thought it was just stupid. (And it also featured art by one Mr Steve Dillon, who you may recall I would go on to provide comical dialogue for, unbeknownst to him.)

The Book of Revelations on the other hand, had a far broader appeal, featuring as it did, Adolf Hitler doing a balloon dance on the cover. A sure-fire way to attract the widest possible audience in our Nazis-and-smut obsessed society. The book contained a scattershot offering of ‘recently discovered revelations’ about all sorts of things: why the dinosaurs really died out (they all turned gay), a Black Death awareness poster in the style of the original AIDS: Don't die of ignorance campaign (featuring a fetching leech illustration), and a bizarre letter from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to the authors written in pencil.

One of my particular favourites was Peter Rabbit, Tank Killer, a supposedly lost draft for a reworking of the much loved Beatrix Potter character by popular WWII fiction writer Sven Hassel. The artwork alone was bang on.

I’ve been a fan of this sort of stuff (Parody? Pastiche? Piss-take?) ever since, and was put in mind of The Book Of Revelations quite recently when watching one of BBC1 Breakfast Time's "It’s almost 9:00 am, so let’s pad the remainder of the programme with some popular entertainment segments". In this particular instance, two absurd media-twats were discussing how Picasso-inspired porcine Peppa Pig and her worryingly-stubbled father were about to break into American television. One of the media-twats was banging on about the Peppa Pig ‘brand’ and mentioned a couple of other childrens’ shows in the same vein.

But he must have been nervous (or coked off his face) when he gabbled the programme names out, because he got one a bit wrong, and it got me to thinking what that particular childrens’ television programme would be like if the all-important word ‘Engine’ were indeed dropped from the title. And so boys and girls, I bring you an excerpt from that well-loved CBeebies staple, Thomas The Tank.

* * *

"Ho ho!" chortled Thomas as he trundled into the bombed-out town. "I'll show that lot at the base what a real tank can do!"

And with that he spun left on his tracks and brought his 120mm main gun round to cover the town square. The shattered remnants of a fountain gurgled away in the centre as Thomas advanced to a commanding position in front of a pretty little post office.

All at once, bullets began to ping and spang at his bodywork. Thomas gasped at first, but then chuckled as he realised that the light small arms fire could do little to penetrate his 38mm hull armour.

"Oh no!" went the enemy soldiers as they saw their mistake. And "Aiee!" as the cheeky Chieftain swivelled his cupola-mounted 7.62 machine gun to face them.

Brrrp! Brrrp! chattered Thomas' secondary armament as he mowed the hostiles down.

"I'd like to see Gordon do that!" he chirped, thinking of the grumpy Centurion. "As soon as the Fat Commander hears that I've taken the town ahead of the main battle group, he's sure to make me lead tank!"

But in his excitement Thomas had forgotten to pay attention to the flanking approaches. Too late, he heard the distinctive grind and grumble of a powerful Maybach gasoline engine getting closer and closer. And sure enough, from across the town square the long nose and Henschel turret of Helmut the Tiger Tank could be seen sticking out round the corner of a gutted bakery!

"Foolish little tank!" boomed the fearsome Panzerkampfwagen. "Your modest hull armour is no match for my PzGr armour-piercing shells!"

"Crikey, I'm done for now!" gulped Thomas as he desperately throttled his Leyland L60 engine to full power and tried to bring his heavy frontal glacis plating round to face the powerful Panzer. "If only I hadn't been in such a hurry to show off in front of Matilda!"

* * *

I could go on in that vein. Quite possibly forever.

I think the toy and merchandising potential here is enormous, though I suspect it would not go down a storm with the likes of mumsnet, which is a pity.